November 20, 2011

The Psychology of Leadership: Part I

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

“A leader is an earthly star.  He is the one human being in a hundred who shines out through the insufficient luminosity of human mediocrity and lights up the dark places of social obscurity.”  — Henry Edward Tralle, Psychology of Leadership, 1925

Do leaders harbor some mystical ability to command the loyalty of millions of people who become their acolytes or, at least, willing enablers?  Or can those skills be taught in business school? The answers may lie in the psychology of leadership.

The late management guru Peter Drucker famously is quoted as saying, “Leadership is all hype. We’ve had three great leaders in this century – Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.”  He also said dismissively, “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.”

The implication clearly is that leadership certainly is not an inherent force for good, that evildoers have proven time and time again that they are just as adept at harnessing the power of persuasion as are the forces for good in this world.

Moreover, none of the three ruthless dictators cited by Drucker are known to have received any formal leadership training.  Stalin received his last formal of education at a seminary, which expelled him as a teen-ager. Hitler dropped out of secondary school, never to return. Mao received an education in Chinese classical literature.

Yet no historian would challenge the notion that these three tyrants succeeded in attracting millions of adoring followers, many of whom laid down their lives at their leaders’ direction.  Despite a bloody legacy of slaughtering millions who opposed or offended them, diehard loyalists still sing the praises of Stalin, Hitler and Mao today.

Jim Stroup, author of the book, Managing Leadership, and the popular blog of the same name believes Peter Drucker was right about his assessment.  “Those guys had it all: vision, oratorical ability, relationship-building skills, charisma, relentless focus, outside-the-box thinking and follower-attracting magnetism.”

So what gave these devils such godly powers, black magic?

Stanley Milgram, a Yale professor, conducted an experiment during the 1960s to test the theory that most people, no matter their nationality or ethnic background, will obey authority figures even when they know the consequence will harm innocent people.

In his experiment, an authority figure dressed in a lab coat was able to convince test subjects to push a button that they thought delivered an electric shock to an innocent person in the next room. Two-thirds continued to give shocks at higher and higher voltage even when they could hear the screams from the other room.

No one actually was shocked during the experiment, which the test subjects who were directed to push the button did not know. Milgram concluded that a majority of people will follow instructions from authority figures even if the consequence is to inflict pain and suffering on others.

In their seminal paper, The New Psychology of Leadership, published by Scientific American Mind magazine in 2007, authors Stephen Reicher, S. Alexander Haslam and Michael Platow argue that “neither the enlightened nor dark rulers of this autocratic genre are true leaders.”

Dictators, like early monarchs, “can shape the behavior of even the most disparate collection of people using repression or rewards to secure assent or encourage compliance.”  However, such “leaders” can succeed only by forcing their followers to comply.  This isn’t leadership, the authors contend; it’s actually coercion.

“When we refer to leadership, we mean the ability to motivate people to act in concert: something that requires an internalized social identity,” said Reicher, Haslam and Platow. “This type of leadership is effective even when followers are not being watched; that is, they do the boss’s bidding even when the boss is away.”

I will explore this and other modern interpretations of the psychology of leadership in my next post.

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